Lawyers challenge state's death penalty law

Supreme Court ruling could render new hearings

February 07, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for Courtney Bryant, the Baltimore man sentenced to death for the murder of a 21-year-old manager at a Hunt Valley Burger King, argued in Maryland's highest court yesterday that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision renders the state's capital punishment law unconstitutional.

If the Court of Appeals agrees, each of the state's 12 death row inmates could be entitled to new sentencing hearings, said Katy O'Donnell, chief of the Maryland Public Defender's capital defense division.

"The argument would be applicable to all the cases," she said. "It could certainly affect each and every case we have on death row."

But in court, Assistant Attorney General Annabelle L. Lisic said the June 2002 Supreme Court holding in Ring vs. Arizona - the appeal of convicted murderer Timothy Ring - should not alter Maryland law.

Bryant's attorneys said the Ring decision - in which the Supreme Court changed its position on how defendants should be sentenced to death - has thrown into question a number of elements in Maryland's death penalty statue.

One of their main arguments focuses on how a judge or jury decides to sentence someone to death, life without parole or life. In Maryland, a defendant can choose to be sentenced by either a judge or a jury.

In making that decision, Maryland law says the judge or jury must first decide if the defendant was the one who killed the victim, then determine if there was an "aggravating circumstance" - for example, a rape or robbery along with the killing.

In Bryant's case, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Alexander Wright Jr. said prosecutors proved that Bryant was the one who stabbed and beat James Stambaugh to death Dec. 23, 2000, and that Bryant had murdered Stambaugh during a robbery.

Because the state proved those facts beyond a reasonable doubt, Wright went on to consider death.

That process consists of weighing the aggravating circumstances against the "mitigating circumstances," facts sympathetic to the defendant - anything from a clean criminal record to a difficult childhood.

Currently, those factors are weighed against each other by a "preponderance of the evidence," the lowest standard of proof.

That means that if the aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances by just 51 percent - often imagined as a slight tipping of a scale - the defendant is sentenced to death.

In an earlier case, the Maryland Court of Appeal rejected 4-3 a challenge saying the burden of proof should be higher and that the state should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the reasons someone should be punished by death are greater than the reasons he should live.

But defense attorneys say Ring wiped out much of the case law that the Maryland Court of Appeals majority used in that earlier case.

"The Supreme Court is crystal clear on this today," assistant public defender Julia Doyle Bernhardt said in court.

She and Lisic argued other points yesterday, including whether Bryant's age at the time of the murder - 18 - should be considered a mitigating factor.

The Court of Appeals usually takes months to decide cases.

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